It gives to give. Research has shown that there is much more to be gained than there is to be lost from acts of generosity. Of course, being generous does come at a cost, requiring you to sacrifice something of your own—whether your time, money, talents, or resources—for the sake of someone else. But despite these losses, studies have proven that giving significantly improves your physical and mental health and strengthens your relationships with others.
During times of stress, it can be a challenge to show up for yourself, let alone others. But one study reports that simply making a pledge to be generous can inspire higher levels of happiness and promote a better outlook on life. This astonishing truth speaks to the transformative power of generosity, a power that can be credited to its ability to reduce stress. While some may seek the generosity of others during hard times, it is important to consider the benefits that come from being generous as well.
Physical Health Benefits of Generosity
It is universally understood that when you do good, you feel good. This good feeling is most easily recognized as a psychological one: happiness. But overlooked are the ways in which generosity improves how your body feels, not just your mind. Growing research has shown that charitable acts can impact your physical health in the following ways:
- It improves your heart health. A 2016 study of prosocial spending among older adults with high blood pressure found that spending money on others lowered their blood pressure to such an extent that it was likened to traditional interventions including hypertensive medications and exercise. Another study of sophomore students in Canada reported that after 10 weeks of volunteer service, students had lower levels of inflammation and cholesterol.
- It decreases your risk of mortality. After observing a group of older couples to examine the health benefits of giving, Dr. Stephanie Brown, author of “Giving to Others and the Association Between Stress and Mortality,” found that adults who reported providing tangible forms of help to family, friends, and neighbors reduced their risk of dying by almost half compared to those who did not provide help. Even those who reported providing emotional services like listening still reduced their risk of death by 50 percent. Interestingly, Brown also observed that receiving help had no influence on mortality whatsoever.
- It strengthens your immune system. Gratitude, a coping response to generosity, can be felt by the benefactor just as much as the recipient. One study found that experiencing gratitude reduced the risk of physical illnesses, including headaches, nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath, fever, congestion, coughing, aches, and joint pain.
- It increases energy levels. During a presentation at the Greater Good Science Center, Dr. Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at UC Davis, shared that there was a 10 to 30 percent increase in exercise among individuals who practiced gratitude, and a 10 percent increase in their sleep cycle, allowing them to wake up more refreshed and alert.
- It decreases adrenaline and cortisol levels in the brain. Researchers studying the neurological effects of generosity found that donating led to diminished brain activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that triggers a stress response. Additionally, research has shown that acting generously releases chemicals into the brain ,including dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins, further reducing stress and stabilizing blood pressure, sleep cycles, appetite, and mood.
Mental Health Benefits of Generosity
Just as lower stress levels have a positive impact on a person’s cardiovascular and physiological health, they also play a key role in promoting and maintaining mental wellbeing. The chemicals that generous acts stimulate in the brain, also known as “happy” chemicals, are what allow you to experience feelings of pleasure, satisfaction and purpose, love, and connection, which all strengthen generosity’s psychological benefits, which include:
- An elevated mood. When endorphins are released into the brain, they produce a rush of euphoria sometimes referred to as the “helper’s high.” This rush, along with increased feelings of satisfaction, creates what scientists call a “warm glow” effect that can improve a person’s mood. A recent study published in Nature Communications found that when participants committed to spending money on other people and behaving more generously, they were more likely to self-report feelings of happiness compared to participants who spent money on themselves.
- A better perspective on life. After conducting an experimental investigation on the benefits of gratitude, Dr. Emmons, along with Dr. Michael McCullough, a professor of psychology at UCSD, found that practicing gratitude boosted participants’ self-esteem, encouraged them to be more optimistic, and helped them to feel better about their lives.
- Lowered risks of depression, anxiety, and other related illnesses. When people even simply think about helping others, they activate a part of their brain called the mesolimbic pathway, a system responsible for inducing motivation, recognizing rewarding stimuli, blocking pain signals, and triggering the placebo effect, all which decrease symptoms of depression or anxiety.
- Increased prosocial behavior. In another study of gratitude led by Dr. McCullough, the co-authors observed how gratitude functions as an important emotional resource essential to social stability, as it evokes other human emotions including empathy and compassion. During his presentation, Dr. Emmons also defined gratitude as a “relationship strengthening emotion,” inspiring sympathy, alleviating loneliness, and discouraging isolation.
Social Benefits of Generosity
While research has shown that higher levels of positivity are reported among individuals who exhibit prosocial behavior compared to those who do not, the essence of prosocial behavior is that it benefits the wellbeing of its recipients and satisfies their needs first, if only. As a prosocial behavior, generosity benefits both its benefactors and recipients in the following ways:
- It promotes trust and cooperation. A Dutch study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that adopting generous, other-regarding strategies in the workplace led to increased levels of trust and cooperation among employees compared to strictly reciprocal strategies like tit for tat.
- It strengthens your relationships. In her study on the benefits of generosity in older couples, Dr. Brown also reported that high-cost giving plays a key role in establishing tight-knit social connections and special bonds with others.
- It spreads to others. Generosity is cyclical. In a 2009 study on the evolution of cooperative behaviors, Dr. James Fowler, a professor of political science at UCSD, and Dr. Nicholas Christakis, a sociologist and professor at Yale University, found that generosity functioned as a contagion—spreading from person to person—noting that one generous act could inspire dozens or even hundreds more.
Practicing Generosity in the Workplace
As generosity is key to fostering trust, cooperation, and strong interpersonal relationships, both employees and their employers can benefit from acting more generously in the workplace. Without having to make any big sacrifices, some small steps that people can take toward becoming a more generous colleague include:
- Lending time and talents to a coworker that has fallen behind on a task or project.
- Taking the time to endorse or write a positive review for a coworker on LinkedIn.
- Giving someone else the opportunity to talk and providing a space to be heard.
- Complimenting coworkers on their achievements in the workplace.
- Providing resources, services, or training to coworkers who are stuck or confused.
- Buying a coffee for a colleague or providing lunch for the whole staff.
- Networking on behalf of shy or modest colleagues.
Regardless of the scale of the act, being generous is guaranteed to make you feel better about yourself, encourage others to feel good themselves and in return think positively of you, and create a friendly, inclusive space where all feel welcomed and inspired to do good.